A Review of Sarah Knott’s Mother Is a Verb

June 21, 2019 § 18 Comments

mother_verbBy Jan Priddy

My first child was born after three-and-a-half days of labor in a teaching hospital in Portland, Oregon. Doctors waited until my contractions were three minutes apart for a couple of days (fearing my baby might be a preemie and only two or three pounds) before they finally allowed me to deliver my five-and-a-half-pound healthy baby. My husband was with me throughout, but everyone else was on shift. The doctor who spent only the last hour with me during delivery wanted me to name the child after her. I laughed. I had also laughed at the book by a male doctor who insisted “no woman need experience pain in childbirth.” I understood that childbirth would hurt, and this was just the beginning. I would have to figure out motherhood mostly on my own.

My mother fed me bottled formula, as was scientifically approved in the 1950s. She was not happy that I nursed my babies for a year, but in other ways she was the voice of experience. Unfortunately, she lived in another state, and I had no local support system at all. My women friends had not yet begun their families, and sometimes their advice was unwelcome. (The best response to a biting toddler, particularly someone else’s toddler, is assuredly not to bite him back!) I read books, and some were more helpful than the one assuring me childbirth would be painless. I wish I’d had this one by Sarah Knott.

In contrast to mere reportage, Knott’s Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History weaves the professional with the personal, a sympathetic and nonjudgmental reflection on past women’s experiences with her experience mothering, paralleling her pregnancies, miscarriage, births, infant and toddler care, and returning to work with various historical narratives.

Knott is a historian and this is a serious academic work—witness over forty pages of notes at the back. It is also a deeply personal and highly readable story of what mothering means to caregivers, doctors, and those who mother, a profoundly humane approach to history.

British-born but living in the US, she has done a remarkable job of locating and respectfully recounting mothering experiences from a wide range of race, sexual orientation, religion, class, and circumstance over four centuries. She frames vignettes and personal testimony from mothers, caregivers, midwives, and advocates of the 1600s through today with her own life, and, thus, offers a rich and compelling history. This is not so much memoir as meditation and documentation. The word “mother” denotes action, what is done, rather than a state of being in possession of a child. Knott reveals how mothering has been done, how “experts” have told us it should be done, and how those strategies shifted across time and culture.

Though Knott finds most historical records in journals, letters, and books come from the wealthy classes, she does not allow entitled voices to overwhelm her narrative. Here are the perspectives of a seventeenth century English farmer, an early nineteenth century American slave,  a Scottish midwife, and an Ojibwa mother of the twentieth century all on the same page. My friend poet Marilyn Chin is here, as is Adrienne Rich, and a young union organizer who carried her infant and toddler with her while advocating for women and their children in 1917—an astonishing range of voices.

She writes, “So much advice dispelled across the centuries. From slim seventeenth-century pickings to mass-market modern books, from paper made of linen and cotton [which ages well] to wood pulp [which does not], from medics and then from matrons, the volume of books and commentary is overwhelming. Dwell a little longer among the century-by century shelves, and further patterns appear.”

From 400 years of history, Knott reveals an astonishing truth: the mid-twentieth century notion that full-time, stay-at-home non-working motherhood was the natural, historical norm is nonsense. Mothers have always worked unless they were wealthy enough to outsource mothering almost entirely. Wealthy mothers were encouraged to put their children in the hands of paid caregivers, to wet nurses and nannies and care in the country far from their mothers’ busy social lives. Most mothers cared for their own, but had extensive and necessary obligations far beyond mothering. Most mothers cooked, cleaned, and brewed, picked crops, fed livestock, spun, sewed leather shoes and clothing, or made artificial flowers while looking after children—all this done close to home, while caring for their newborn infants. Wrapping, running, and tying down, mothers looked for means of safely managing their infants while carrying on with work because their work never stopped. And mothering was not always done by mothers but by aunties or neighbors, an entire community of mothering.

For most of human history and until very recently, mothering was officially ignored. Mothers learned their skills from other women. Today, as we are separated from extended family, we attend medical training or sponsored support groups, and we read how-to books and articles. History has been measured by political movements of interest to men, by battles and money and invention. Technology. Culture has been measured by kinship and hunting and male ritual. Even women themselves have failed to record their days, and often Knott pieces together daily life from side comments in letters and by reading between the lines of literature and medical journals. Indeed, until men became involved as professionals dictating how infants should be birthed and raised, very little is recorded about mothering at all.

Doctors and government agencies disrupted functioning childcare patterns when they dictated methods of “scientific” childcare in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries to a woman on a reservation in Arizona, a former slave in Alabama, immigrants in New York City. These mothers already know what they were doing because they had managed to hold on to a tradition of mothering support.

I know nothing about how my grandmothers birthed and raised their infants. My mother delivered under anesthesia, my babies were whisked away to the nursery, but my granddaughter was born in water and kept skin-to-skin with her mother.

I was able to stay home with my babies for a time, but I cleaned and baked and knit and pieced quilts. I wrote and read, pursuing activities that were safe around my infant sons. I returned to work outside the home sooner than I wished. It was a stressful time until my children were both in school during my work day. I’d have appreciated how my experiences were shared by past generations and might more easily have forgiven myself for struggling so hard to do it right. This book provides both reassurance and affirmation to all those who mother.

Jan Priddy’s work been published in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, The Humanist, and North American Review. She lives in the northwest corner of her home state, Oregon, and she runs a blog, Imperfect Patience.

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